Tony Blair’s Journey
Posted on Sep 16, 2010
Media studies has long been one of Blair’s specialities – and there is much of it in this book, some nuanced and some not. Excessive examination of media rights and wrongs tends to make its participants mad. Blair focuses comically on one his favourite paradoxes in describing a moment when he admits himself to have been as maddened by media frustration as at any time in the book. The setting is the first night at the Millennium Dome, an early New Labour disaster in which, I should declare, I was involuntarily involved. On the last afternoon of the second millennium, the then Prime Minister, as he describes the scene, is dreading the formal opening of the third, just as is almost everyone else due to be present at Greenwich, including the Queen. In line with his lowest expectations, the big “River of Fire” fireworks go fut; the big “Millennium Wheel” does not turn. While he, his family, and the royal party are safely delivered to the £700 million plastic tent of fun on a new Tube line and in good time for midnight, the nation’s newspaper editors, of whom I was then one, were left queuing for hours at Stratford Station.
At this point of discovery Blair engages the minister in charge, his old friend and flatmate Lord “Charlie” Falconer, vigorously and by the lapels:
“Please, please, dear God, please tell me you didn’t have the media coming here by tube from Stratford just like ordinary members of the public.”
“Well, we thought it would be more democratic that way.”
Arguments over whether the media or the politicians or neither of the above had the closest ties to the public became a commonplace of the Blair years, though few of them were quite so neatly expressed. If the politicians wanted to win the battle to be closest to the voters, how was this to be done except by seeming to be most like them? On Millennium night it did not matter too much who was the victor. After the first phase of the Iraq war was over it mattered rather more. A central issue was over a single unspoken word: “sorry”. The question was not the right or wrong of going to war itself (though this was asked vigorously too), but how a modern politician should respond to the consequences. I raised this with him very specifically myself, on a plane journey back from Athens after the end of the period described in my diary of that time, Thirty Days. He told me that for every death that had happened as a result of his actions, however rightly or wrongly taken, he would answer to his Maker. That would be his continuing burden until the time to answer to his Maker came.
Not so long ago that would have been an answer – whatever its merits or demerits – wholly normal, in line with commonly held public attitudes, perfectly suggestive of a politician who was a “person like us”. Today the merits or otherwise of that proposition remain the same, but its closeness to public attitudes has dramatically changed. Consider the likely stance of the “normal sort of guy”, whose traits the politicians must seem to share, the kind who buys an ice cream cone for a friend, talks more freely than his parents did about sex, and maintains his teenage crush on rock stars into late middle age: if such a man does something for the very best of reasons, after the very deepest thought, and there are terrible unforeseen consequences, he says “sorry” to those affected. He may also say that “sorry” is an inadequate and insufficient response; that many others owe him their gratitude for the same actions; even that he will answer to whatever awaits him in any afterlife for what he did; but he will say “sorry” anyway and as well.
The politician that is Tony Blair is not, however, a normal person, whatever his ice cream stunts, sexual frankness and membership of the U2 fan club might make the unwary think. When asked at the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War, in January this year, if he has any regrets, he feels “sick, a mixture of anger and anguish”. He sees the question, wholly accurately, as a “headline question”, one designed to produce in black-and-white print “BLAIR APOLOGISES FOR WAR, AT LAST HE SAYS SORRY”. He argues to himself, as described in A Journey, that he will not risk the cause in which he continues to believe by giving succour to his enemies. To those whose passion is only about his past failings, he argues that he takes “responsibility” instead, a continuing commitment, not one that can be closed in his lifetime. He feels “words of condolence and sympathy to be entirely inadequate”. His life itself, the simple truth that “they have died and I, the decision-maker in the circumstances that led to their deaths, still live” is his answer, the answer not of a normal man but of a politician, an extraordinary man and politician, who had too successfully pretended to be normal.
Peter Stothard is editor of The TLS and author of “Spartacus Road: A Journey Through Ancient Italy” and “Thirty Days: A Month at the Heart of Blair’s War.” Between 1992 and 2002, he was editor of Britain’s Times.
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